UKC

Glacier travel

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 Martyn Maltby 07 Oct 2021

OK, I think of myself as a seasoned alpinist with 45 year’s mountaineering under my hip belt, - though others may think of me as a grumpy old fart. But I’d like to share my observations from a trip last month to the Monte Rosa massif. I chose this area because of the number of baggable peaks that were just snow plods, or glacier treks as the guidebooks put it. 
On my 4 hour snow plod, axe in hand, up a dry then wet glacier, quite steep in places, crevasses and snow bridges, to a 4k metre peak, I saw maybe twenty other parties, some in pairs, some in threes, some in fours or fives or more.

Every party I saw was roped together, (I was billy-no-mates). Everyone had a harness on, obviously. Everyone had krabs and slings, and maybe prussik loops. Everyone had, and were using, two ski/walking poles. Everyone had an ice-axe, - strapped to their rucksack. 

Am I missing something here, is it my age related confusion, or is that sort of set up, as I think it is, just barmy? If it is then I hope it might enlighten anyone on UKC who thought this practice was OK. If there are arguments supporting this practice, then I’m all ears, but you’ll have to speak up.

 subtle 07 Oct 2021
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

The second time I fell in to a crevasse I seem to recall it being quite troublesome to remove the skis and unpack the ice axes from my rucksack whilst dangling upside down on a rope.

That was the last time I fell into a crevasse though.

 OwenM 07 Oct 2021
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

With two on a rope, would be interesting to see how they could hold a crevasse fall with only poles. Five on a rope they should get away with it. 

In reply to Martyn Maltby:

I see where you are going: if someone feels the need for a harness + rope + prussic pre tied, then they need an axe in hand not ski pole. And I agree with you!

As a related question, does anyone still bowline a rope round waist or tie sling round waist in territory where you really think falls/crevasse very very unlikely, but on a wet glacier but don't wish to Not use the rope? Is my attitude outdated there?

Post edited at 17:43
 OwenM 07 Oct 2021
In reply to CantClimbTom:

> As a related question, does anyone still bowline a rope round waist or tie sling round waist in territory where you really think falls/crevasse very very unlikely, but on a wet glacier but don't wish to Not use the rope? Is my attitude outdated there?

Totally mad, death by strangulation comes to mind. Harnesses were invented to avoid such an awful situation, why go back to the bad old ways. You can get a Harness that weighs around 300g these days.

In reply to Martyn Maltby: Unless I am also missing something, I would say the 20 or so parties you saw probably had a better chance of surviving and recovering a crevasse fall than you. I would rate your bad practice as worse than theirs!

 pec 07 Oct 2021
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

Last time I was in that exact area I saw several guided parties roped together walking only a few feet apart carrying coils of slack rope in their hands, this was on wet glaciers.

Perhaps the guides think they know where the crevasses are or are confident that nobody is actually going to fall down one because nobody ever has so far? Who knows, but if nothing else, it sets a very bad example to their clients who may go on to climb independantly thinking that's what you do because guides must know what they're doing.

 Martyn Maltby 07 Oct 2021
In reply to Martin Haworth:

> Unless I am also missing something, I would say the 20 or so parties you saw probably had a better chance of surviving and recovering a crevasse fall than you. I would rate your bad practice as worse than theirs!

I’m not really arguing about the chances of surviving or escaping a crevasse fall, my point is, as someone above said, the fact that none of them are going to arrest a partner’s slide or fall with their ski poles, and so being roped together seems pointless, as is carrying axes on their rucksacks. My concern is the possible false sense of security.

I had my axe in my hand so could arrest a slide or fall, though not, as you rightly say, a crevasse fall. 
So are you saying soloing is ‘bad practice’? Interesting discussion point.

Post edited at 19:20
In reply to Martin Haworth:

> Unless I am also missing something, I would say the 20 or so parties you saw probably had a better chance of surviving and recovering a crevasse fall than you. I would rate your bad practice as worse than theirs! <

A roped party of two unable to arrest a fall means both are at risk.

In reply to Martyn Maltby:

> I’m not really arguing about the chances of surviving or escaping a crevasse fall, my point is, as someone above said, the fact that none of them are going to arrest a partner’s slide or fall with their ski poles, and so being roped together seems pointless, as is carrying axes on their rucksacks.

> I had my axe in my hand so could arrest a slide or fall, though not, as you rightly say, a crevasse fall. 

> So are you saying soloing is ‘bad practice’? Interesting discussion point.

My point was more that you were criticising their poor practice on glacier travel when your practice was equally or possibly more dangerous. 
I’m not against soloing, it’s a calculated risk, a decision for the individual.

 Webster 07 Oct 2021
In reply to Martin Haworth:

> My point was more that you were criticising their poor practice on glacier travel when your practice was equally or possibly more dangerous

definitely not more dangerous. being unroped is much safer than being badly roped. if nothing else at least he knows where he stands in the case of a fall instead of being lulled into a false sense of security. soloists are also generally much more switched on and cautious and likely take fewer actual risks (other than the big risk of soloing in the first place) compared to roped parties. and finally, as another has pointed out, if an unroped person falls into a crevasse then thats  one person in a crevasse, if  badly roped person falls into a crevasse then thats several people in said crevasse!

 Webster 07 Oct 2021
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

the amount of bad practice you see going on in popular places in the alps, often by guided parties, is quite frankly shocking. its just as bad on the Le Tour glacier here in chamonix for example. every time i am up there i see parties of 4 or 5 roped together about 6 feet apart from each other, ice axe and helmet strapped to rucksack (to protect their lunch?) etc etc. I just think there is a real lack of proper coaching and instructing over here in europe compared to the UK. even when it comes to the guides exams, the focus in france (as an exampe) is much more concerned with how hard you can climb rather than if you can actually look after your clients... and the less said about basic ice axe technique this side of the channel the better!

In reply to Webster:

> definitely not more dangerous. being unroped is much safer than being badly roped. if nothing else at least he knows where he stands in the case of a fall instead of being lulled into a false sense of security. soloists are also generally much more switched on and cautious and likely take fewer actual risks (other than the big risk of soloing in the first place) compared to roped parties. and finally, as another has pointed out, if an unroped person falls into a crevasse then thats  one person in a crevasse, if  badly roped person falls into a crevasse then thats several people in said crevasse!

You don’t know they were badly roped, your making assumptions to support your view of “definitely not more dangerous”. If they were roped with 15m between them then I would rate their chances as good.

In reply to Webster: Agree with everything you say here. It amazes me that there aren’t more serious incidents.

 Roberttaylor 08 Oct 2021
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

> Every party I saw was roped together, (I was billy-no-mates). Everyone had a harness on, obviously. Everyone had krabs and slings, and maybe prussik loops. Everyone had, and were using, two ski/walking poles. Everyone had an ice-axe, - strapped to their rucksack. 

> Am I missing something here, is it my age related confusion, or is that sort of set up, as I think it is, just barmy? If it is then I hope it might enlighten anyone on UKC who thought this practice was OK. If there are arguments supporting this practice, then I’m all ears, but you’ll have to speak up.

Not totally barmy, but not best practice and still less barmy than soloing on the same ground, and I say that as someone who used to solo on wet glaciers from time to time (and doesn't any more). 

Lots of very good alpinists have found themselves in crevasses while soloing (Steve House and Colin Haley are two that pop to mind). These are the ones that we know about, because they survived and wrote accounts. Plenty of others will have died in a slot and vanished from the record, entering our awareness only as an accident statistic.

To answer your question, to my knowledge there are no arguments supporting the practice of being roped up on a wet glacier with an ice axe strapped to your bag rather than in your hand. Poles can aid efficiency on certain types of terrain (maintaining good posture, spread the load, additional stability) but as you are obviously aware, arresting a fall/slip with a walking pole is just not going to happen, at least not on any sort of incline. 

Post edited at 05:15
 VictorM 08 Oct 2021
In reply to Martin Haworth:

> You don’t know they were badly roped, your making assumptions to support your view of “definitely not more dangerous”. If they were roped with 15m between them then I would rate their chances as good.

I would say that this pretty much determines if said parties were out of their minds or taking a calculated risk. If the distance would be a lot less than 10-15m then everything goes out the window. 

On a glacier where all the main trade routes are known by the guides and with a party of at least four I think that party would stand a fair chance of holding a fall even when they are not carrying axes. 

I would still say that they should be carrying their axes, but it's not automatically suicidal. Now, that doesn't go for the doubles or triples. They might as well be soloing. 

 Webster 08 Oct 2021
In reply to Martin Haworth:

im going by what the OP says, plus with my quite considerable experience of viewing badly roped up parties here in chamonix...

and you are arguing with me on one comment and then saying that you agree with me 100% the next comment down? what?

In reply to Webster:

> ... and the less said about basic ice axe technique this side of the channel the better!

Really?? I'd thought their parcours de glace and insistence on being really competent at (often neglected) foundations like piolet ramasse with an antique axe was commendable

edit: But not disagreeing with you on other points that this says nothing much about actually looking after clients or correct roping in Chamonix

Post edited at 07:57
 crayefish 08 Oct 2021
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

Interesting topic... I love going solo but the glacier travel part has always prevented me from heading to the Alps for mountaineering (now doing some Arctic stuff instead as a result).

 Webster 12 Oct 2021
In reply to CantClimbTom:

europeans often have their axe the wrong way round and in the wrong hand... and i believe self arrest is not even taught on basic intro to alpine courses over here (apart from the ones taught by PyB etc). 

In reply to subtle:

You wouldn’t be skiing on a dry glacier and I usually use trainers on the Mer De Glace as they’re comfy walking along on a pan flat smooth mountain highway. But if people want to be roped fair enough, but I suggest the parties Martin saw were probably under instruction.

In reply to Martyn Maltby:

At the weekend I passed an Italian guide and two clients walking over the crevasses by the Entrèves in late afternoon. The widest of the crevasses was fully open about 3m away and had a very obvious sag in the snow bridge where we crossed. The guide was wearing no helmet, all three had the axe on their packs and were walking with poles out. There was about 5m of rope between the guide and the first client, and about 4m of completely slack rope between the two clients.

I didn't say anything, but I really wanted to.

 oureed 13 Oct 2021
In reply to Webster:

> europeans often have their axe the wrong way round and in the wrong hand

What do you mean by the wrong way round? In what circumstances?

In reply to Philb1950:

I don't really understand your point here, you are describing a completely different scenario. The terrain Martyn described was..."wet glacier, quite steep in places, crevasses and snow bridges"

 Webster 13 Oct 2021
In reply to oureed:

pick forward when walking/plunging

 steve_gibbs 13 Oct 2021
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

I used to take a pretty relaxed approach to glacial travel, as after eight seasons in the Alps and a stint in Antarctica, I thought I had enough experience to read glacial terrain and avoid crevasses, but pride comes before a fall. The last route of the season, coming off the Tash-Dom Traverse I fell - properly fell - into a crevasse, where in a split second a completely invisible snow bridge popped and I remember falling; shooting down the icy walls into the black abyss below, but in the back of my mind I knew I was roped up and it would (I hoped) go tight at some point and it did, some 6-7 metres down. I can't even imagine what that would feel like unroped! I for one will certainly be taking glaciers a lot more seriously.

 oureed 13 Oct 2021
In reply to Webster:

> pick forward when walking/plunging

I agree this is the best way to hold your axe if short-roping on steep terrain where self-arrest is not a reasonable option. The pick can be quickly shoved into the snow to prevent a slip. Most Alpine climbers I've seen hold their axe like this all the time

However, if you're hoping to self-arrest (ie. are moving unroped on a moderate slope, or roped-up far apart on a glacier) you're better holding the axe with the pick pointing backwards otherwise you'll stab yourself in the face when you go belly-down on the snow. I see a fair few UK climbers hold their axe like this all the time.

 VictorM 14 Oct 2021
In reply to oureed:

To add to this, it also depends largely on snow conditions. Your pick is not going to help you much when the snow is very soft, as is also true for the other way around. Your Adze is not going to do much when it's icy. 

So what is 'right' or 'wrong' depends on a lot of things. Now, if all of these things were present there...

In reply to VictorM:

I'm not sure your adze is going to do much (for self-arrest) in any circumstances?

I have a simple rule: if the terrain is moderate enough that I'm only using the shaft, the axe gets held pick-backwards. If the terrain becomes steep enough that the pick finds utility, it gets held pick-forwards. I'm not sure it needs much more thought than that — but like everything else involving snow and axes, it needs one to no be lazy and not stop thinking. The axe is no use if its still [strapped to your pack/being held casually behind your back/in your downhill hand].

 VictorM 14 Oct 2021
In reply to tehmarks:

I’ve done fall arrest exercises in soft snow with both adze and pick and the adze does perform moderately better in those conditions. 

Granted, exercises only and the snow needs to be so soft that any real-world scenario glissade is unlikely, but still.

I agree with all other points.
 

In reply to Webster:

> europeans often have their axe the wrong way round

The French term for that is "Piolet Merde" (I didn't make that up), so maybe there are people out there with the pick pointing towards their body ready to fall on, but I don't think it's a taught approach, certainly not by the French guides anyhow.

> i believe self arrest is not even taught on basic intro to alpine courses over here (apart from the ones taught by PyB etc). 

Finding it very hard to restrain myself from a "things aren't what they used to be moan" or to mention I was taught axe self arrest at school (and obviously carrying them etc) when I was 15 as a prerequisite for walking in snowy conditions although never crampons or rope (if needed crampons or rope it was deemed unsuitable for school trip). Self arrest was seen as the first and most basic skill to learn when moving from Summer to Winter hill/mountain walking. Grumble grumble grumble....

 Webster 14 Oct 2021
In reply to oureed:

yes if 'daggering' then you have the pick facing forward, but when just walking then the pick should always be backwards, whether going up, down, left, right or whatever. yet the amount of times i see people walking out of the midi arete pick forwards is just depressing.

In reply to VictorM:

I've never heard of self arresting with the adze down. Isn't the point that you have your torso above the axe, so you would be impaling yourself on the pick?

Post edited at 06:18
 VictorM 15 Oct 2021
In reply to Suncream:

Not true, or at least not in a controlled situation. In essence you are planking above the pick. I can't imagine that an alpinist does not have enough control over his core muscles to keep themselves from impaling themselves. 

I'd say give it a try the next time you are in a position to practice in a safe environment. You'll notice that it will make somewhat of a difference in soft snow conditions. Granted, it's a very specific situation and 9/10 times you would self-arrest with the pick. 

 oureed 15 Oct 2021
In reply to Webster:

> the amount of times i see people walking out of the midi arete pick forwards is just depressing.

Cheer up! The idea of self-arresting down either side of the Midi arete is quite frankly unrealistic. On the steep section, however, you may want to "dagger" in some places if the snow is hard, especially if you have someone on the end of your rope.

 galpinos 15 Oct 2021
In reply to VictorM:

> Not true, or at least not in a controlled situation. In essence you are planking above the pick. I can't imagine that an alpinist does not have enough control over his core muscles to keep themselves from impaling themselves. 

I've no idea what the continental taught method is but the traditional UK method you really use your torso and body weight to get the pick into the snow/ice when self arresting. Slips are most dangerous when the snow is hard (you pick up speed terrifyingly quickly) and we have a lot of hard snow in UK winters so you need to arrest your fall quickly.

 galpinos 15 Oct 2021
In reply to Webster:

If you are basing your criticism of the French education plan on seeing French punters out and about I imagine you'd have a pretty damning view of PyB bearing in mind the state of mist Brits in the Alps on their first few forays (myself included!).

 VictorM 15 Oct 2021
In reply to galpinos:

I know, that's why I mention there are different snow conditions requiring different ways of self arrest, and hence different ways of holding your axe. In hard snow it's obviously pick based and leaning in hard. Soft snow is different, your pick will cut through it like butter. Your adze is wider, and hence has more stopping power in those situations. 

In reply to VictorM:

What sort of axe were you doing this with? Even my mountaineering axe has a bit of curve to the shaft that I can only imagine would make this less effective (and more dangerous) — with a technical tool I don't think I'd give it a go even if you paid me. And with a Nomic...

 VictorM 15 Oct 2021
In reply to tehmarks:

With a slightly curved general mountaineering axe with a length of about 60cm. Obviously only applies to situations you would use this in so nothing too ridiculously steep and no technical tools for sure

In reply to Martyn Maltby:

I thought this post was going to be about the M25

 Alex Pryor 15 Oct 2021
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

> OK, I think of myself as a seasoned alpinist with 45 year’s mountaineering under my hip belt, - though others may think of me as a grumpy old fart.

I have to disagree with you there Martyn, no-one I know thinks of you as a grumpy old fart

 Martyn Maltby 15 Oct 2021
In reply to Alex Pryor:

> I have to disagree with you there Martyn, no-one I know thinks of you as a grumpy old fart

I knew there’d be someone who’d disagree with my post.

 wee jamie 15 Oct 2021
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

I've been laughed at by French climbers for having my axe out on relatively easy terrain a couple of times when they had their poles out.  My French is so poor I don't even try justifying it.

 ScraggyGoat 15 Oct 2021
In reply to VictorM:

Agree, the adze can be a more effective brake in some conditions.

Im also not convinced of the pick must face back towards your body at all times argument. Having helped stretcher somebody off the hill that slipped on ground not really steep enough to pick up momentum, but impaled themselves in the stomach.

I am in favour of knowing why you are doing something, and I’ve been around long enough to know what guides and instructors teach and say as best practice can be revised or even reversed a few years or decades down the line.

Assess not just conditions, but also advice!

Post edited at 19:58
In reply to Martyn Maltby:

In 2008 four of us were traversing the Aletsch glacier as 2 ropes of two.  We were travelling between the Konkordia hut and Hollandia Hut on a bad weather day.  
 

The weather really closed in and we had ski goggles in the deteriorating conditions as it began to snow and wind picked up.  I’d been leading the lead rope through the maze of crevasses on the at the time wet glacier. It was really quite exhausting as anyone who has been on that glacier knows the  crevasses are not all nicely laid out in a particular direction. Sometimes they are perpendicular, later parallel.  After navigating 3/4 of the way I asked the guys on the second rope if they’d take the lead.

The weather had really closed in.  The second guy on the new lead rope has his head down and had a bit of slack into their rope.  At that point Jamie  the front guy now navigating the way disappeared into a crevasse. His second hadn’t noticed with his head down in the weather.   We saw the rope snaking away and shouted over the wind for his second to brace his legs lean back and get his axe in.  He was the least experienced member of the party.  Fortunately he managed to hold the fall but Jamie had disappeared.

We sorted out the second, securing his position.  Then I secured my position then my partner went over to the lip of where Jamie had disappeared.  Jamie was hanging in free space about 8 metres down.  

We setup a pulley system on their rope but even with two of us pulling there was too much friction to overcome.  We emptied one rucksack (mine) and my partner secured that under the rope at the crevasse lip.  That enabled us to overcome the rope digging into the lip.  When Jamie got within a couple of metres of the lip his rucksack started connecting with the narrowing of the crevasse and interfering with his extraction.

My partner managed to lower a caribiner on the end of a loop of our rope and we got his rucksack out and secured that. We then resumed on the rescue pulley system and as soon as Jamie could reach he was able to help with his ice axe beyond the lip.

All this time the wind and snow had been blowing / falling.  I’d say it took a good hour, if not 1.5 hours to get Jamie out. We were all completely frozen, hands barely working. Jamie in the crevasse had been sheltered from it, and was quite comfortable.

Luckily we had two ropes and four of us.  Both members of our other rope didn’t go in.   After repacking my rucksack I took back over the navigation. The other two too shaken to continue in the lead. We made it to the Hollandia hut with no further mishaps.

That evening we practiced and practiced pulley and anchor systems for crevasse rescue with our least experienced member.   

In subsequent alpine seasons we’ve made everyone in the club practice crevasse rescue in the month before a trip.  We’ve used trees or overhanging crags to simulate the load.  This is done irrespective of experience.  A refresher each year is always worth while.

I cannot imagine being out on a glacier and not having my axe, prussics, and ice screws to hand. Plus knowing what to do if my partner goes in.  

A key lesson we learnt that day above all else is be alert no matter the weather.  The quicker your react the easier the extraction and less the consequences.   Members have fallen into crevasses since.  But the ones I’ve seen, the other rope partner was alert, had the rope reasonably taut, and the person going in has only gone as far as their shoulders or slightly below the lip.  Easy extraction from there.

Post edited at 21:12
 jon 16 Oct 2021
In reply to Currently Resting:

Why didn't you join together into one rope of four??


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